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Anchorage School Board considers loan program for space-strapped charter schools

  • Author: Tegan Hanlon
  • Updated: May 31, 2016
  • Published December 13, 2014

On a recent weekday afternoon, a kindergarten student read aloud to a teacher in the kitchen at Rilke Schule German School of Arts and Sciences.

A series of children rotated through the stainless-steel room Tuesday, completing their kindergarten assessments. The teacher sat across from them at a portable, plastic table, his back inches from two ranges and feet from a refrigerator.

"It's far from ideal," said Dean Ball, principal at Rilke Schule.

Rilke Schule and other public charter schools in the Anchorage School District share a challenge: facilities. Not only do the costs of leasing facilities eat away at the schools' budgets but the lack of affordable space in Anchorage has crippled the efforts of some growing schools to move into appropriately sized and equipped buildings.

Unlike neighborhood schools, charter schools must pay for their facilities out of their operating budgets. In contrast, the district pays for the buildings of neighborhood schools through capital funding, primarily paid for through bonds voted on by residents of the municipality.

"We're trying to provide an innovative program and at the same time we don't have the same dollars to work with that your neighborhood schools do," said Shanna Mall, principal at Winterberry Charter School. "So with the charter schools, you have to make concessions with size, space and all sorts of things in order to hopefully spend as little (as possible) of your operational costs on your building."

Efforts to reduce facility costs at charter schools have cornered some in unexpected places around Anchorage. Winterberry bounced among two churches and an old U.S. Geological Survey facility before moving to its current newly built home. Rilke Schule houses its 440 students in three floors at Wellspring Ministries, six outdoor portable classrooms and Abbott Loop Elementary School.

"It's been a constant, constant need for more space," Ball said.

On Monday, the Anchorage School Board will consider a resolution that aims to ease the facility plight for charter schools, brought forward by board member Natasha von Imhof, who has had two children go through Rilke Schule.

Under the resolution, the board would establish a $5 million Charter School Facility Fund using money from the district's unassigned fund balance, which charter schools could borrow from in the form of long-term, low-interest loans. Von Imhof said she hopes that by setting up the fund, the district could position itself to receive additional state and federal dollars for charter schools, should the money become available.

"In order for (charter schools) to survive, they need a facility," von Imhof said. "And the reason why I like the Charter School Facility Fund is that it's a renewable resource because it's a loan, so charters can access it and pay it back."

For Rilke Schule, the district loan would afford the school the option to avoid going into the private market to borrow money at higher rates, said Givey Kochanowski, chair of the school's Academic Policy Committee, a group of elected members who govern the school.

"I really laud the school board for trying to bring some equity to this," he said.

Since the state Legislature passed House Bill 278 this year, funding -- as far as the state foundation formula goes -- has normalized across neighborhood and charter schools, according to Mark Foster, the chief financial officer at the Anchorage School District.

"The big difference between charters and neighborhood schools on the overall budget is who pays for the building," he said.

Mike Abbott, the district's chief operating officer, said that the district has taken a "hands-off approach" when it comes to charter schools acquiring and maintaining facilities in efforts "to give flexibility."

The district has nine charter schools, including two for home-school families and one that has yet to open its doors due to its inability to find a space in Anchorage.

"Charter schools get dollars, and they have much more flexibility of how they choose to spend those dollars," Abbott said. "So if they want to have their parents clean the buildings as volunteers and that's OK with their landlord, that's up to them."

For Rilke Schule, this means the German immersion school has a janitorial staff at night but no daytime custodian, Ball said. Some summers, he and a group of other parents sand down, paint and varnish the gymnasium floor to save money. The school has no library, no computer lab and no cafeteria, and classrooms are roughly half the size of those at neighborhood schools. Students eat lunch in those classrooms with their teachers.

Of Rilke Schule's $4,276,000 annual budget, it spends about $864,000 -- or roughly 20 percent -- on lease and facility payments, according to Kochanowski.

This year, Rilke Schule has hit a critical point with its facility at Wellspring Ministries. The lease ends this summer and it has not been renewed. The charter school is working with a construction company to build a new, bigger building, which it would lease with the long-term goal of eventually owning.

"We need to be a single-campus, K through 8 location," Kochanowski said.

The School Board may consider a lease for that building Monday, which could include a $2 million long-term loan provided by the district for Rilke Schule to help ease loan payments, von Imhof said.

Kochanowski said the proposed loans would shrink the costs of moving into a new building.

"We would pay back the district," he said. "It's not a grant or a giveaway. It's a way to service charter schools."

Anchorage STrEaM Academy has also hit a roadblock when it comes to finding affordable space. At the School Board's last meeting, it voted to reapprove STrEaM's application while the applicants continue to look for a place to house the school.

"In the ideal world there would be space for every charter school in ASD space. It's not there today," said Andranel Brown, a Begich Middle School teacher and one of the original founders of STrEaM.

The district offered STrEaM classrooms in Chugiak, about 30 minutes north of downtown Anchorage and away from the students in East Anchorage who the school aims to serve, Brown said. Charter schools do not receive transportation funds, so there are no school buses.

Brown said the Charter School Facility Fund could provide STrEaM with the initial boost needed to afford entering into a lease before student enrollment begins and they receive state money.

"It could alleviate some of the pressure for us," Brown said.

The school board has also talked about exploring whether the district could bond for charter school buildings and renovations, aligning the process with neighborhood schools. A resolution has not yet been brought forward.

Joey Eski, vice chair of the Academic Policy Committee at Aquarian Charter School, said bonding would give the school -- located in an old district building -- the ability to revamp its current space or build a new space that would more adequately fit its more than 380 students.

And if the bond fails, Eski said, the Charter School Facility Fund could provide a backup source of money.

At the municipality level, the Anchorage Assembly will consider a resolution Tuesday to provide a property tax exemption for properties owned or leased by charter schools, putting them in line with neighborhood schools.

"Every penny matters, especially at a charter school," Kochanowski said.